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The Kavanaugh Hearings Were a Missed Opportunity—For Both Sides

In Humanities, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Politics, The Supreme Court on September 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

By now you’ve heard about the combative spectacle that was last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for President Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. This momentous event was characterized not by political acumen, wit, cunning, or prudence, but by partisan obstruction, lawlessness, tantrums, hysteria, ignorance, frenzy, and anger.

Protestors screamed vulgarities and trite slogans, proving they were not interested in Kavanaugh’s responses or in substantive intellectual debate. Seventy of them were arrested on Tuesday alone. If anything, their recurring interruptions and crude histrionics gave Kavanaugh time to pause and think about his responses rather than tire out and let down his guard.

Online left-wing rabble-rousers peddled an absurd conspiracy theory about Zina Bash, a former clerk for Kavanaugh—only shortly before right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was banned from Twitter. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, publicly released documents that were allegedly confidential, claiming full knowledge of the possible repercussions of his act—namely, expulsion from the Senate. “Bring it,” Booker taunted Senator John Cornyn, who warned about the consequences of the supposed confidentiality breach. With unintended levity, Booker announced his “I am Spartacus” moment. Only the documents weren’t confidential after all; they’d already been approved for public release. Thus, Booker’s Spartacus Moment was merely a political stunt of faux bravery.

Why this hostility? Why these shenanigans?

A Deep Philosophical Clash

For starters, the midterm election cycle is upon us and the Mueller investigation appears to be nearing an end. Politicians like Booker are grandstanding for political gain as they consider running for president. Kavanaugh has been tapped to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, moreover, who was the court’s so-called swing vote, whereas Justice Gorsuch filled Justice Scalia’s seat. Gorsuch’s appointment did not tip the balance of the court the way Kavanaugh’s might. Democrats also remain angry that Republicans did not act on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.

But something more is going on. We’re witnessing a philosophical clash regarding the proper role of the judiciary.

Kavanaugh identifies as an originalist and a textualist. Originalism comes in different permutations, having evolved since the days when it sought principally to recover the original intent of an author or authors. Its most prominent adherents today see it as an interpretive approach to the original public meaning of a text. It maintains that the words of the law should be construed according to their ordinary meaning as understood by a reasonable person at the time they were enacted.

Textualism, similarly, interprets words without resort to extratextual factors such as authorial intent or legislative history, focusing instead on the ordinary meaning of words as written. For the purposes of this piece, I use the term originalism without drawing distinctions between it and its close cousin textualism.

Getting Kavanaugh’s Originalism Wrong

Originalism so described seems uncontroversial on its face, but you wouldn’t get that impression from activists who have opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination. “Originalism conflicts sharply with American reality and American ideals,” writes Alan Brownstein, a retired law professor. He labels originalism “unamerican,” saying it accounts for the views of “only the people who were here in the 1780’s and 90’s or when specific constitutional amendments were adopted,” not for the views of the “vast new diversity of the American people today.”

This, I think, is wrong. Originalism properly understood is depolarizing, isolating judges from the political process rather than injecting them into it. The Constitution contemplates internal modifications, chiefly through the amendment process, which is, by design, difficult to facilitate. If originalism limits changes in law to those processes contemplated in the Constitution, as Brownstein alleges, then Brownstein has inadvertently labeled the Constitution “unamerican.” How can this founding document, which sets forth the basic framework of government for the United States, be “unamerican”?

Brownstein seems to imply that the amendment process, being slow and onerous, should not be the sole avenue for reform—that the courts ought to be a driver of progress when legislative solutions stall. The implication here is that the Constitution ought to be a “living” document that can be updated or improved through judicial correction and adaptation in cases. Judges should, accordingly, exercise quasi-legislative powers, promulgating binding rules and opinions to achieve justice or equality or to align with evolving standards of decency.

5 Reasons Everyone Wins with Originalism

Here’s why Brownstein is mistaken and why now more than ever a commitment to originalism would benefit both the left and the right.

First, originalism does not guarantee a particular political result. As Scalia, one of the original originalists, remarked, “If you’re going to be a good and faithful judge, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re not always going to like the conclusions you reach. If you like them all the time, you’re probably doing something wrong.” Scalia sometimes reasoned to conclusions that favored Democratic or liberal policies because the operative text so required.

Second, originalism fosters trust in democratic systems. Legislatures and the public need to know that newly enacted laws stand a chance to last as long as they comport with the Constitution. People lose confidence in their governing institutions if they believe the laws they passed can be easily tinkered with or discarded by unelected and hence unaccountable judges.

Third, although originalism may lead to harsh results in certain cases, it leaves it to the collective wisdom of the people, acting through their representatives, to alter the law to achieve fairness or justice. Concentrating revisionary lawmaking power in one judge or group of judges increases the probability that an uncommon or idiosyncratic conception of justice that does not represent the conception of the people will become binding over them.

Fourth, originalism makes the law clearer and more predictable, not subject to the unpredictable or arbitrary considerations of a judge or group of judges. When the law as written is applied, parties to a case and the general public can with reasonable sureness predict a range of possible outcomes. But if judges do not apply the law as written, the range of possible outcomes multiplies to the extent that the law itself becomes uncertain, and parties cannot rely on the law when they make everyday decisions. Vagueness in the law causes arbitrary exercises of governmental power. Clarity in the law restrains government actors from exercising powers in a manner that has not been formally approved by the legislature.

Finally, originalism ensures the independence of the judiciary. Kavanaugh has insisted that he is an independent judge. Democrats may dispute that claim, but they can’t dispute that originalism itself operates to secure judicial independence. Originalism is nonpartisan and does not consistently yield results that can be easily classified as conservative or liberal. Even jurists on the left have embraced originalism. Justice Kagan famously declared, “We are all originalists now.”

A week after politicos and activists celebrated the bipartisan spirit of Senator John McCain, the Kavanaugh hearings broke down into partisan pandemonium. Originalism should have been a unifying feature of the Kavanaugh hearings. It wasn’t. So here we are today, approaching the midterm elections in a country that’s as divided as ever. God help us.

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Is Ocasio-Cortez Right About Rights?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Civics, Conservatism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 29, 2018 at 8:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review. 

Colin I. Bradford writes fawningly that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, reaffirms “the centrality of the individual, individual rights, liberty, and freedom in which respect, trust, fairness and responsibility loom large.” He depicts Ocasio-Cortez as the embodied union of individualism and collectivism, someone who, in his words, “sees the individual as both a solitary being with certain inalienable rights and as a citizen and member of society.”

There’s much to unpack in Bradford’s frightfully grand statements, but let’s briefly consider some historical context for them.

“Modern Western ‘democracies,’” says John W. Danford, “are actually better described as liberal commercial societies. They rest on principles of individualism and individual rights—especially legal rights—which are more fundamental than democracy, and also much newer.”

Individual Rights Came from Christianity

The belief that humans by their nature possess “rights” against which governments may not transgress has not always been commonly held. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014) made the compelling case that natural rights theories are distinctively Christian in origin. He presents the ancient pagans as tribal and patriarchal, characterized by fierce loyalty to kin and clan and lacking conscientious differentiations between public and private life. (The operative differentiation was between public and domestic life.) Inequality was accepted as a given; the notion of rights was practically nonexistent. What mattered was the family unit: secure lineage, child bearing, and glorification of the paterfamilias as the powerful hero. Cities emerged from familial corporate associations around which property relations were structured according to class hierarchies.

Correlated with the rise and spread of Christianity in the West was the proliferation of the concept of the individual as a rights-bearing creature with inherent dignity, which any legal order properly so called must recognize and protect. The teachings of Jesus Christ and St. Paul redirected political thought away from the material, phenomenal world and toward the afterlife, eternity, and the soul. The message that grace through Christ was available to anyone, not just rulers or the highborn, underscored the autonomy of the individual, the self-aware subject. A Christian emphasis on personal moral agency and responsibility, moreover, undercut Greek and Roman aristocratic culture and its attendant traditions of ancestor worship.

Siedentop contends, therefore, that Christianity, not the Renaissance, was the fountain of individualism. If the Enlightenment was the height of philosophizing about the relationship of the individual to society, then it was also the natural outflow of earlier eras shaped by Christianity. This narrative runs counter to the portrayal of medieval Christianity as closed and authoritarian and of the Enlightenment as predominately secular. It illuminates Danford’s description of modern liberal societies as fundamentally committed to individual rights embedded in the law.

Mutual Submission, Similar Ethics

A distinguishing feature of Enlightenment thinking was social contract theory, which is particularly important to the Anglo-American legal tradition as manifest in Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1789–91). These documents enshrine the principles of equality under the law, basic human dignity, rule of law, consent of the governed, popular sovereignty, and natural rights.

The most celebrated delineations of social contract theory belong to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. A simplistically synthesized account of their three hypothetical origins of political society runs like this: humans once existed as free agents in an ungoverned state of nature and eventually banded together in protective social units to enforce claims to property and defend against outside threats; voluntarily entering into these social units required individuals to give up unfettered liberty by consenting to the authority of a superintending body—a government— that exercised only those powers to which the individuals in the society corporately assented, either expressly or impliedly.

The social contract for a mature, successful society involves a collection of individuals wise enough to appreciate the reciprocal advantage of mutual submission and similar enough in ethics and morals to prescribe the proper scope, limits, and structure of the approved ruling authority. The U.S. Constitution, in theory, represents a social contract: a pact between citizens and its rulers that restrains government, divides power, and sets competing interests against one another with offsetting effect.

U.S. Supreme Court “Expansions”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in cases regarding the Fourteenth Amendment, began in the twentieth century to evaluate claims of unremunerated, allegedly fundamental rights in light of the history of judicial safeguards. A purported right was deemed presumptively fundamental if it enjoyed an established tradition of formal recognition by Anglo-American courts. Under this interpretive scheme, when the Supreme Court determined that an alleged right was nonfundamental, the alleged right would not be incorporated (via the doctrine of substantive due process) to apply against the states. The Supreme Court, however, gradually recognized particular suspect rights within broader categories of long-established rights. The so-called right to privacy, for example, that had valid antecedents in the common law was repurposed to include phenomena unknown at the common law.

The tendency of the Supreme Court in the twentieth century to expand (and, in some cases, to limit) the scope of alleged rights reveals, I think, that a privileged group of robed lawyers are inadequately equipped to philosophize about rights. The validity of alleged rights accrues socially, from the bottom up, when they can be traced over time to long-standing, if not immemorial, usage, customs, mores, and traditions, and when their practical applications have been tested by successive generations. Certain rights are natural, that is, prior to government promulgation, but their intelligibility is deeply historical, rooted, contextual, situational, and embedded.

Rights or Privileges?

One could argue, and Siedentop suggests, that Christianity’s institutionalization of rights discourse created the conditions necessary for secularization, in effect that Christianity ushered in a culture that led to its gradual removal from civic society. Siedentop postulates, in other words, that the success of Christianity eventuated its demise in the Western public sphere. The story of rights discourse in U.S. Supreme Court decisions lends credence to this perspective, revealing that prevailing notions of rights have grown to encompass what were once merely privileges.

If institutions follow culture, however, then a constitution that contemplates individual rights is only as good as the people it controls: a populace without extensive virtue will weaken or decline regardless of its organizational governance and administrative framework. Christianity may not have promoted ideas that caused its erasure from our governing institutions; rather, the people of the United States may have drifted away from the Christian ideas that made those institutions effective and stable.

Bradford recognizes that “individualist values of liberty, property rights, freedom and sovereignty worked well in the 20th century as the foundations of competition, free markets, democracy and the nation state.” Yet he sees these concepts as inadequate today, lacking something he believes Ocasio-Cortez can supply, to wit, a form of collectivism that in his representation facilitates community and social harmony. He simply fails to see that the unique individualism that emerged out of Christianity generated the community and social harmony he now desires.

There is no individualism absent the recognition that every human life, anywhere and everywhere, is precious and important. It follows from that premise that no one may violate the rights of others who themselves have not violated another’s rights. This principle, extended to society writ large, creates the conditions necessary for community to flourish. Individualism in Christian societies aided the growth of cities, institutionalized the dignity of the human person as a bearer of rights, and challenged rather than empowered abusive government. Ocasio-Cortez should not hope to eradicate this kind of individualism, for it has accomplished more good for humanity than the socialism she purportedly embraces.

How Much Legislative Power Do Judges Really Have?

In America, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

During his confirmation hearing last year, Justice Neil Gorsuch told Senator Dick Durbin that Roe v. Wade was “the law of the land.” A recent Washington Post headline declared, in light of Obergefell v. Hodges, “Same-sex marriage is the law of the land.”

What does it mean that opinions of the United States Supreme Court are the law of the land? Is an opinion of the Supreme Court a law? If so, do judges make law? If judges make law, thereby exercising legislative powers, wouldn’t they be legislators, not judges?

If Supreme Court opinions are laws, how can they be overturned by later justices? Were the overruled decisions never actually law to begin with? Were they temporary laws? Were the American people simply bound for years by erroneous rules or judgments?

Ask these vexing questions of ten experts in constitutional law and you’ll hear ten different responses.

Why so complicated? Perhaps because the framework of American government is at stake. Centuries of political theory, moreover, cannot be condensed or expressed in concise opinions involving particular issues about fact-specific conflicts. Judges and justices are not positioned to delineate philosophical principles with nuance and sophistication. Yet they are tasked with administering the legal system and are guided by deeply held convictions or inchoate feelings about the nature and sources of law.

When we debate the role of judges vis-à-vis the legislative or executive branch, we’re invoking the separation-of-powers doctrine enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. That doctrine derives principally from the theories of Locke (1632–1704) and Montesquieu (1689–1755).

In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke claimed that the preservation of society was “the first and fundamental natural law.” Today we worry about the corruption and incompetence of members of Congress, but in Locke’s era, when the monarch exercised extraordinary powers, the legislature was a bulwark against tyranny. It represented the will of “the people.” The preservation of society thus required robust legislative authority.

“This legislative is not only the supreme power of the commonwealth,” Locke intoned, “but sacred and unalterable in the hands where the community have once placed it; nor can any edict of anybody else, in what form soever conceived or by what power soever backed, have the force and obligation of a law which has not its sanction from that legislative which the public has chosen and appointed.”

Why must the law emanate from the legislature? Because the legislature, in his view, embodied “the consent of the society over whom nobody can have a power to make laws.” Locke’s paradigm holds, accordingly, that the legislature speaks for the people, from whom legitimate government obtains its limited authority; legislation reflects a general consensus among the people about controlling norms, beliefs, and values. The judiciary is curiously absent from this paradigm.

Montesquieu articulated a tripartite model of governance, adding the judiciary to Locke’s calculus. He argued that a state of political liberty would not exist if any of the three branches of government—executive, legislative, or judicial—arrogated to itself powers belonging to another branch. The branches competed, effectively offsetting their respective powers through checks and balances.

Montesquieu and Locke were among the most cited thinkers during the American Founding. They were indispensable sources for the framers of the U.S. Constitution. The first three articles of the Constitution establish our three branches of government.

Concerns about the scope and function of judicial power have begun to divide legal scholars on the right. On one side are proponents of judicial restraint as practiced by Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia; on the other side are advocates of judicial engagement, which calls for a more active judiciary that strictly enforces restrictions on government action.

The judicial-restraint camp contends that the judicial-engagement camp would have the judiciary infringe on legislative authority in violation of the separation-of-powers mandate. The judicial-engagement camp contends that judges deferring to political branches often abdicate their duties to enforce not only the constitutional text but also unenumerated rights allegedly inherent in that text.

The view that judges cannot make law is increasingly unpopular. “The dubious aspect of separation-of-powers thinking,” Richard Posner says, “is the idea that judges are not to make law (that being the legislator’s prerogative) but merely to apply it.” Posner submits that “judges make up much of the law that they are purporting to be merely applying,” adding that “while the judiciary is institutionally and procedurally distinct from the other branches of government, it shares lawmaking power with the legislative branch.”

If Posner is right, then Montesquieu’s trifurcated paradigm collapses. That, or our current system is not maximally amenable to liberty as conceived by Montesquieu.

Parties to a case generally recognize judges’ rulings as binding. Courts and institutions generally accept Supreme Court decisions as compulsory. Even individuals who defy judicial rulings or opinions understand the risk they’re taking, i.e., the probable consequences that will visit them. Judicial rulings and opinions would seem, then, to be law: they announce governing rules that most people respect as binding and enforceable by penalty. If rulings and opinions are law, then judges enjoy legislative functions.

Yet the natural law tradition holds that law is antecedent to government promulgation—that indissoluble principles exist independently of, and prior to, pronouncements of a sovereign or official. On this view, the positive law may contradict the natural law. Which, then, controls? Which is the law, the one you’ll follow when push comes to shove?

Your answer might just reveal how much legislative power you believe judges really have.

What Is the Rule of Law, Anyway?

In America, Civics, Economics, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on June 7, 2017 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

“Donald Trump Could Threaten U.S. Rule of Law, Scholars Say.” So declared an ominous headline in the New York Times roughly one year ago. MSNBC likewise ran a suggestive interview in January entitled, “Will the ‘rule of law’ survive under Trump?”

Such alarming commentary presupposes the existence of the rule of law in the United States and appears designed to portray Donald Trump as a threat to that rule. In March, however, Reason republished and retitled a curious piece that first appeared in The Week: “The Immoral ‘Rule of Law’ Behind Trump’s Deportation Regime.” The implication of this revised title (the original read, “How today’s pro-immigrant activists are adopting the tactics of abolitionists”) is that Trump is staunchly committed, rather than antagonistic, to the rule of law.

So which is it? Does Trump jeopardize or safeguard the rule of law?

The answer, if we assume the rule of law is in full force and effect in the United States, is probably situational: In some cases, Trump undermines the rule of law, while in others he reinforces it. But to know for sure, and to appreciate the difference, one must first understand what the rule of law is.

The rule of law encompasses multiple legal principles, chief among them is that the rules that govern society apply equally to all individuals within the prescribed jurisdiction. No person, not even the king or the president, is above the law. Law, not the arbitrary commands or categorical dictates of human rulers, is supreme.

Thus, the opposite of the “rule of law” is the “rule of man,” or the idea that the formal, discretionary imperatives of a powerful sovereign necessarily bind his subjects and subordinates.

The rule of law is a philosophical concept and a liberal ideal that gained ascendency during the Enlightenment (think Locke and Montesquieu) but that can be traced to antiquity (think Aristotle). The British jurist Albert Venn Dicey listed as its prime characteristics:

  1. “the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power”;
  2. “equality before the law, or the equal subjection of all classes to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary Law Courts”; and
  3. “a formula for expressing the fact that with us the law of the constitution, the rules which in foreign countries naturally form part of a constitutional code, are not the source but the consequence of the rights of individuals, as defined and enforced by the Courts.”

These suggest that the rule of law is a bottom-up rather than a top-down system of governmental ordering based on already enunciated and widely accepted precepts. The operative rules that regulate the normative order of human activity in a free society under the law are rooted in custom and tradition. A ruler or judge is, in such a happy jurisdiction, responsive to the controlling principles that are antecedent to his or her political election, appointment, or empowerment.

F. A. Hayek identified the rule of law as a defining attribute of the common-law system, which, in his view, stood in contradistinction to the civil-law system that instituted vast codes and complex administrative agencies to superintend the unvigilant populace. Legislatures, of course, are accountable to the people through elections; thus, their enactments must reflect extant social practices and beliefs to satisfy voters. Administrative agencies, with their extensive rulemaking powers, are not so accountable. They are by design removed from legislative procedures and thus isolated from voters.

Hayek saw the common law as a decentralized form of social organization, and civil law as centralized planning and design. The rule of law, he thought, inhered in the former system but not in the latter. “The possession of even the most perfectly drawn-up legal code does not, of course, insure that certainty which the rule of law demands,” he warned, “and it therefore provides no substitute for a deeply rooted tradition,” which the common law embodied.

The rule of law encapsulates other seminal concepts as well: the predictability, consistency, reliability, neutrality, and clarity of working rules, for instance. These, however, are in some way derived from the principal teaching that, in Hayek’s words, “all rules apply equally to all, including those who govern.” By any appreciable standard, the United States has not lived up to this high ideal in light of the growth of sovereign immunity and qualified immunity for government officials, the disparate treatment of individuals based on their political power and connections, and, among others, the rapid rise of the administrative state.

Lately the rule of law has become associated with a law-and-order mentality that emphasizes punishment, severity, and rigidity as touchstones of the legal system. The rule of law, on this view, is the instantiation of brute force or the execution of raw power, or perhaps an ideological construct meant to condition the populace into servile submission to government authority.

This understanding of the rule of law has some merit: John Hasnas’s article “The Myth of the Rule of Law” explains how rule-of-law rhetoric indoctrinates people into casual acceptance of the harmful government monopoly on the institutions of law. He decries the gradual acquiescence of ordinary people to, in his words, “the steady erosion of their fundamental freedoms” in the name of the rule of law.

But the rule of law as an ideal, rather than a felt reality, aims to preserve rather than imperil fundamental freedoms. Perhaps there are those with ulterior motives who champion the rule of law to achieve concealed goals; perhaps government in its current form cannot actualize rule-of-law ideals. When rule-of-law discourse does serve the repressive function that Hasnas describes, it is unduly coercive and abusive. In its proper form, and as it was originally understood, however, the rule of law aspired to restrain government power.

In the minds of yesteryear patriots like Thomas Paine, the United States epitomized the rule of law. He averred that “in America the law is king,” whereas “in absolute governments the king is law.” He said, as well, that “in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.”

If the law is no longer king in America, it’s not because of Trump. That he enjoys immense and immeasurable power is evidence of the extent of the decline of the rule of law in this country.

Having flouted and subverted the rule of law for decades, the radical elements of the progressive left in the United States now face the inevitable consequence of their concerted activity—namely, that their coercive methods and institutions may be turned against them, and the authoritarian structures they created may service policies at odds with their own.

We can all learn a lesson from this revealing irony.

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